Life and Death

Emptying Tomorrow

What's said in the marriage, stays in the marriage. Mostly because age is kind and I can't remember the petty comments we've flung at each other over 21 years. The loving comments are said often enough they are ingrained in my heart. But there is something Brendan said to me long ago which I will share with you: "Julie, you're not happy unless you have something to worry about." This resonates still because, well, it's mostly true. I would cut the word "happy" -  worrying doesn't make me happy. It makes me.

Let's rewrite that sentence: "Julie, you're not, unless you have something to worry about." Anxiety is my fuel.

This terrific blog post about anxiety and the creative process flowed into my Twitter feed last week: Let's Talk About Anxiety and the Creative Process. It got me to thinking about the nest of anxieties I create and where it fits into my writing life. Author Dan Blank reminds us we all bear the burden of uncertainty and our fears are relative - no more, no less than the guy in the coffee shop we are eavesdropping on. But in this up-by-the-bootstraps, My-Facebook-Life-Is-Perfect society, we are loath to name our anxieties lest they reveal the gross flaws in our character.

On the heels of Dan Blank's blog post was an interview with comedian Marc Maron on WHYY's Fresh Air. Maron is hilarious guy, clever and endearing. And a chronic fretter (Fretterer? Fretishist? Chronically fraught?). When asked by host Terri Gross if he related to the idea of suffering as inspiration for his creativity, Maron replied "...I have found that ... I experience a tremendous amount of dread and fear and panic. I think that misery for people that incredibly anxious or frightened is something consistent. I think obsession sometimes works as almost a spirituality. You know, you have a routine that your brain kind of loops around that you call home, but that's usually in defense of some other part of you that's unruly. And for me, I think it's anxiety and panic and worry and dread." So what you're saying, Mr. Maron, is that you are not, unless you have something to worry about. You bow at the altar of Dread. Hey, we're a religion!

A couple of weeks ago I went out for a trail run. On uphill stretch I realized my heart was trying to leap from my throat. I stopped but could not catch my breath. This scared the shit out of me and made my heart race even faster, which made me panic more, which... A man passed me and we waved at one another. I thought it would be bad form to collapse in front of a stranger. Finally my heart slowed and my lungs opened. I hobbled back to the car, chilled and cowed by my body's betrayal of my mind. I'd been on that same stretch only days before and bounded up the same path. I chalked it up to running on an empty stomach and tried to push away darker fears.

Early the next morning while sitting on the sofa, writing and drinking my morning joe, my heart zoomed. I could have been sitting in a cramped airplane seat in the middle of a 10-hour flight, the way the panic attack came on. Now I was scared. I know, I know, I should have called my doctor (new in town, I didn't yet have a GP and I was one week away from a new health insurance plan taking effect. God Bless America, Land of It's Cheaper to Die Than Visit the ER). The next day I sliced my coffee intake in half (a fun few days of withdrawal drudgery ensued) and all but eliminated alcohol. I wondered, at nearly 44, was this the start of hormone-induced perimenopause? I eat clean, I run, swim, bike, yoga - I'm fit as a fiddle. A little creaky and soft in many spots, but sheesh...

Although I couldn't completely rule out a physical cause for my racing heart (and I do have a doctor's appointment scheduled. In June.), I'm pretty attuned to my emotional heart. I knew all those tiny eggs in the nest of anxieties I've been incubating over the past several months were hatching in the warmth of spring. And some of them are full-grown birds of prey, coming home to roost. Here are my chicks and hawks, complete with ID bands so even if I set them free, we'll keep track of each other:

Things I Worry About Constantly

  • something will happen to Brendan and I will be alone
  • I will contract a terminal illness (Cold comfort that I already have a terminal illness. It's known as being born)
  • I will fall victim again to depression and an Amber alert will have to be issued for my soul
  • I will have another running injury and be denied the addictive substance I crave: endorphins
  • I am irrelevant. This is wrapped up in the heartbreak of infertility, miscarriage and the failed attempts to adopt. I have a surplus of love that feels like it's draining into a black hole of regret and sorrow
  • Money. This is back again, after taking a few years' hiatus. We've given up a lot to follow our hearts' calling and the compromise, at least in the near future, is financial security
  • I'm missing fundamental truth of my life, something that's right in front of me. And I'm not getting any younger.

Not on this list:

  • Writing

I search for it. I listen for the scratching the door. But I feel no anxiety about my writing. This is not a matter of self-confidence - I have no illusions about my skills and talents. It's simply the one open space in my life not crowded by my fears. Perhaps more importantly, I don't feel anxious when I write. The world slips away and I don't feel much of anything - not my belly, my bladder, my stiff neck or aching shoulders. I feel the story.

Nor do I entertain illusions about publication, as least not through the traditional channels. I've released myself from that pressure and those expectations. When I finish this monster and return to writing short stories before tackling the next long-form project, I'll hope for the same publishing success as my recent short story endeavors. I'll do all I can to bring my novel to the shelf, but I remind myself daily that the writing process is what brings me peace and fulfillment, not the reward of extrinsic acknowledgment.

Perhaps this is the fundamental truth about my life over which I seem to lose so much sleep. And I'm not getting any younger.

But I did run that damn hill again.

bending not breaking  admiralty inlet may 2013

Our anxiety does not empty tomorrow of its sorrows, but only empties today of its strengths. Charles Spurgeon

Book Review: The Fault In Our Stars by John Green

The Fault in Our Stars When a book seems to be everywhere, gaining critical and commercial attention, I do my best to avoid reading reviews. I aim to remain as neutral as possible and even ignorant of the book's premise so I can read with an unbiased mind. So it was with The Fault In Our Stars. It wasn't until I had it home from the library, reading the jacket summary, did I know it was a young adult novel with cancer as a central cast member.

When a book touches me in a certain way, I seek out negative reviews before writing my own thoughts. I wonder if my emotional reactions have clouded my critical assessment and I look for counter opinions to balance my perspective.

I read through several less-than-enthusiastic Goodreads reviews of The Fault In Our Stars, appreciating some comments, shaking my head at others - as we do in that community. But one review and the intense debate/discussion that accompanied it troubled me greatly. The reviewer, while recognizing the quality of Green's writing, questioned the right the author had to tell the story. Presumably because he had not lost a loved one to cancer, although the book was predicated on Green's experiences as a chaplain at a children's hospital.

What troubled me about this review was the questioning of an author's right to tell a story that he or she had not experienced directly. This is a work of fiction. This is what writers do. Of course many writers fictionalize events in their life, using their experiences as jumping off points for stories, as Green did. But the notion that a writer must restrict his storytelling to first-hand events is preposterous. Should Martin Zusack not have written The Book Thief? Should Cormac McCarthy not have written Blood Meridian? Should China Miéville not construct his steampunk fantasy worlds? Should Shakespeare not have written Hamlet? Okay, you get my point.

John Green wrote a deeply personal and very contemporary story from the first person perspective of a young woman dying of cancer. No, the author has never been a sixteen year old girl with a terminal illness. But he gave voice to her tragedy in a way that has touched thousands of readers. It's is what we trust writers to do: to tell the stories we know, can imagine, or want to hear but do not have the ability to voice on our own.

Another criticism of this book that bugged the heck out of me was the charge that of an emotionally manipulative story. This is a young adult novel about kids dying of cancer. If there is a way to write the story that doesn't involve intense emotions, well, it would not be a story I'd care to read. Adolescents and teenagers feel things deeply. On a scale of one to ten, they experience life at twenty. If anything, in a world of instant feedback and frighteningly short attention spans, I am grateful for a book that takes the young adult reader's breath away, that makes them feel truly, madly, deeply.

And yet another poke at The Fault In Our Stars was the hyper-precocity of its characters. It's true. Teenagers aren't this articulate. In fact, no one I know, no matter how widely read and clever, speaks with the rapid-fire wit and clarity of Hazel and Gus. Then again, no one speaks like characters in a David Mamet play, or a Quentin Tarantino movie, or an Aaron Sorkin television drama. Yet we eat that shit up. Because it's great writing and the characters knock us out. I WANT young readers to hear voices like these. Because young readers are smart. They get this dialogue, these characters. Just because they aren't capable of spouting forth with such erudition (who amongst us is?) doesn't mean they aren't capable of examining and responding to life with sophisticated insight. May I remind those critics again that this is a work of fiction?

I wasn't fully on board with the subplot of elusive and misanthropic JD Salinger-esque author and his strange book - those scenes seemed forced and stilted to me - but I would have gone just about anywhere with these characters.

A beautifully rendered tragedy with smart, funny, honorable characters whose voices are unique and strong. I can think of no greater gift to young and mature readers alike than a powerful story told with grace and feeling.

This Round's On Me

I almost bailed. It wasn't just the hangover. I tend to get a little manic in the early half of hangover recovery (I swear my best runs are the morning after one too many glasses of wine). But that night, it was the M. Stansfield, the Lazy Gardener and a shared carafe of sake. And the pork belly dumplings. And the kimchi. I was up early, despite the gin. I went for a swim - endorphins being the best hair-of-the-dog I know - then home to a monster plate of poison-soaking-up pancakes. And I still had hours to sneak in lunch and perusal at Elliott Bay Books before the afternoon writing workshop at Hugo House.

It was more that I'd had a shitty two weeks of writing. I'd kept up with my early morning writing sessions, except for the two days we were out-of-town almost buying a house and then not and then leasing an apartment. And the one morning I was compelled to finish the book that had so enraptured me during a bout of raging insomnia a few hours before. Turning its final pages, I sat on the sofa clutching a gut-scorching mug of coffee and I sobbed.  Then I went to work and quit my job. Didn't get much writing done that day. And then there was the morning after the night before, my brain too hazy with gin and kimchi to face pen and blank paper.

But really, I've churned out some pages. Just not as many as I'd've liked. Weekends have been distracted frenzies of packing and shopping for things that I fear I will need but won't be able to just pop out and purchase once I leave a city of 4 million for a peninsula of 10,000. I missed my February goal of 90,000 total by... oh... 5,000 words. Or so. Not fair. It was a short month by four days. I might have made it, otherwise.

So on this day, after my swim and pancakes, after peppermint tea and Advil, I settled at my desk with several days' worth of writing to type into my manuscript. Got the iPod queued up with hours of rainy day tunes and shut down the social media sites. My fingers flew across the keyboard. Then the pounding began. And it wasn't in my tender head.

At first I thought the culprit was the young architect upstairs who introduced himself to our complex last Halloween by throwing a raging party (my neighbors and I don't party. Sometimes the guy across the courtyard yells during football season) that resulted in me calling the landlord at 7 the following morning to have someone clean up the vomit on our patio spewed by a party girl from the balcony above. I'm not a fan of the guy upstairs. And he's a stomper. A small guy who crosses his living room like Charlton Heston in a chariot pulled by water buffalo.

But it wasn't Stomper Boy. It was coming from below the apartment. I discovered the landlord in the basement, repairing the basement ceiling, i.e. my frigging floor. For over an hour, I was subjected to hammering, drilling, thumping. Then the birds that nest in the chimney got going. Soon I was surrounded by a convention of noisemakers, all of whom were clearly aware that this was the first time in days I had sat down at the computer, knuckles cracked, primed to work. I did work, between bouts of cursing, but it wasn't quality - it was a secretarial act, retyping my longhand without registering my intent in the words.

I considering bundling myself, laptop and notebook off to the Queen Anne branch of the SPL, where I spend most weekend afternoons. But then the hangover fatigue hit and I knew after thirty minutes wrapped in the blanket of a warm, quiet Reading Room, I'd be mush. And by the time I settled in, I'd have to turn right around and schlep across town to Capitol Hill and Hugo House to attend a workshop I'd registered for last December in a pique of writerly enthusiasm. Which was now the one hundred percent last thing I wanted to do.

So I gave a "Fuck it" and stomped out the front door.

Ah jeez.

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Sometimes I just want to talk about writing. I want to hear other people talk about writing. Workshops are dandy and handy and I nearly always come away with a scrap, or a collection of scraps, that I can mine for story ideas, motivation, contemplation. But I am not a star at writing well on cue - it's gotten easier, as I've mentioned before - but I'm about as skilled a spontaneous writer as I am a speaker - which means I'm better off remaining the mysterious, quiet presence in the back of the classroom. Keep 'em guessing. Never let 'em hear you sweat.

At some point during the afternoon, our guide and conspirator Jonathan Evison, author of the New York Times bestseller West of Here (2011), The Revised Fundamentals of Caregiving (2012), and recipient of the Washington State Book Award for his debut novel All About Lulu (2008), confessed he'd been dreading this workshop for several weeks. "I'm not a teacher," he proclaimed in the opening minutes of our hours together. "I don't believe you can teach writing. Just ask me some questions."

It wasn't a workshop. It was a talkshop, a thinkshop, a laughshop. The topic was ostensibly the relationship between the writer and the reader, which is first and foremost a dialogue the writer has with herself. What is the effect I'm trying to create with the story? What do I want the reader to walk away feeling, considering, sorting out? We discussed the assumptions we must make about our readers' intelligence.  As writers, we should "understate our expertise" by not engaging in a brain dump of research to ensure our readers get where the story is coming from and how the context informs the present action. This is critical for me to consider, as the very nature of historical fiction is fraught with sinkholes of exposition and backstory.

We talked about allowing characters free rein, to respect the direction characters take and to be prepared to "reverse engineer" the plot when the logic of the story or the logic of the characters' character demands it. I foresee putting on my big girl pants and wading into the muck of my plot for some serious reverse engineering in drafts to come.

We chatted about tension in story arc, the dance between the logic of the characters - remaining consistent with their nature - versus "subverting the reader's expectation" by taking the story in a direction they won't expect, yet by the end, becomes the only direction that is true to the story.

But mostly, we just kvetched. We spilled about the business of writing, about beta readers, editors, publishers, agents and failure. We examined the trajectory of an author who wrote his first novel in 1987, at the age of 19. Many novels and lifetimes later, the first published novel appeared in 2008, when Evison was 40. Twenty-one years of scraping together enough part-time gigs to support a writing habit that now supports a family full-time. To have the opportunity to mine the brain of a hard-working writer who takes nothing for granted blew away the cost of admission.

We compared work styles - Evison is yet one more champion of the first-thing-in-the-morning, long-hand school (I remember a workshop I attended a couple of years ago when the author strongly advocated early morning writing. I still have my notes, in which I scribbled "I'm up at 4:30 to run as it is, how the hell can I get up any earlier to write?" It took me another year to admit to myself I was making excuses about not having the time or energy to write while working full-time. Two years later, I see a novel coming together that will have been written nearly entirely between 4:30-5:15 a.m., one page at a time. This shit works, people. If you can't be there every day, aim for a minimum of 5). Evison revises as he goes, which I'm able to do with short fiction, but I fear I'd never finish if I attempted real-time revision with the novel. He writes a page a day, 320 days a year. A novel is born.

And we talked about what it is to be a writer. Which in the end has nothing to do with anything above. It is the moment you lose yourself in the story, you feel no hunger, no thirst, no pressure on your bladder. When you look up at last, you see that hours have passed. You felt only the characters acting through you; you became a conduit for the story to flow from the universe to the page. How it gets there and who eventually reads it is irrelevant to the fact that the only requirement to be a writer is to write. Jonathan Evison is correct. That can't be taught. It can only be done.

Book Review: White Dog Fell from the Sky by Eleanor Morse

White Dog Fell from the SkyWhite Dog Fell from the Sky by Eleanor Morse My rating: 5 of 5 stars

White Dog Fell from the Sky is as beautiful and profound a novel about love as any I have read. With grace and power it presents all the forms of love the heart is capable of holding: love born of compassion and of passion, love of family and of country, the blinding, feral love for one’s children, for any child, the helpless love for suffering animals, the love of justice that compels us to act, despite our fear.

The story unfolds in Botswana in the mid-1970’s. Across the border in South Africa the jaws of apartheid are grinding black citizens to bone and dust; those caught rebelling face torture and death in prison. A young medical student, Isaac Muthethe, escapes across the border in a hearse, hoping to create a new life and eventually smuggle his younger siblings into Botswana before apartheid swallows them whole. A stranger to Botswana, with no contacts or destination, Isaac begins walking. Behind him is a dog who appeared out of nowhere and who refuses to be left behind. Isaac names him White Dog and so by naming him, becomes attached to him as a symbol of survival and unconditional love.

By chance Isaac encounters an old chum, Amen, who is a member of the South African resistance movement, the ANC. Amen invites Isaac into his household. Fortuitously, Isaac is hired as a gardener by Alice Mendelssohn, an American woman in a nearby town.

Alice’s story, which begins as her marriage comes to an end, becomes linked to Isaac’s by a spark of compassion. It’s as if her heart knows its way before her head has a chance to object. She welcomes Isaac into her home with matter-of-fact generosity, while her mind is distracted by the stress of a stuttering marriage coming to a cold stall.

To put some distance between herself and her present reality, Alice leaves town on a research trip to the great veldt of Botswana - remote, removed, cut off from her town life. Alice asks Isaac to remain in her home during her absence. He is overwhelmed by her sudden trust, yet determined to be worthy of her respect. Alice is surprised to fall in sudden love with a taciturn British anthropologist, Ian Henry. She delays her return home to explore the possibility of a future with this solitary man, her senior by a generation.

When Alice returns several weeks later, Isaac has disappeared. His beloved companion, White Dog, remains behind, waiting for him, nearly dead from starvation. In the kitchen an uneaten bowl of porridge sits spoiled on the table, as if Isaac had been interrupted at his breakfast.

Isaac’s fate takes the reader into dark and terrible places; Alice’s quest to find him reveals the light of compassion and the depth of love.

In addition to love, the themes of social justice and political realities in Africa play central roles in the narrative. Man-made borders, that between Botswana and South Africa, the separation of blacks and whites, the barriers of language, social class and nationality as well as the fences designed to keep wildlife away from pasture land, create a sense of confinement and claustrophobia that is at ironic odds with the vast savanna of southern Africa.

Eleanor Morse’s prose captures the searing heat and treacherous beauty of Botswana; her characters touch every sense with a Babel of languages, revealing eyes or masked expressions, the salt on their skin, the sweat that clings to their clothes, the hair that shows or belies their ages. The tension she maintains leaves the reader raw and unable to let the book rest – the story compels as much as it shatters.

There is something very classic about Morse's writing style. This is the work of a mature, confident writer – making me think of Margaret Atwood, Shirley Hazzard, Richard Ford, Iris Murdoch. It could have been written thirty years ago instead of last year – there is an elegance, an ease, a straightforward storytelling style that contains not the least trace of contemporary self-consciousness.

I implore you to read this beautiful book. Your soul will tremble, your heart will ache and you will be changed as a reader.

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Book Review: In the Shadow of the Banyan, Vaddey Ratner

In the Shadow of the BanyanIn the Shadow of the Banyan by Vaddey Ratner My rating: 4 of 5 stars

To render historical, political fiction in the voice and through the eyes of a young child, a writer sets herself a tremendous challenge and takes on great risk. Children are naturally fanciful, unreliable creatures - not dishonest, but only able to offer the truth as their immature brains can grasp and explain it. When the story is revealed as the author's own, the reader feels compelled to accept a fictionalized account as mere degrees of separation from the truth.

What Vaddey Ratner has accomplished with her striking and lovely In the Shadow of the Banyan is a tone poem. Its outline is based on the atrocious Khmer Rouge regime, but the narrative floats on themes of family, mythology and the deadly beauty of the author's homeland. The nanny of the story's narrator, Raami - the author's mirror character - says it best when she declares that stories “are like footpaths of the gods. They lead us back and forth across time and space and connect us to the entire universe.”

In the Shadow of the Banyan is a story that connects us to Cambodia's recent past and the genocide committed by the Khmer Rouge during the late 1970's. Because we are seeing the events unfold through the eyes and within the heart of a seven-year old girl, we are twisted and wrenched by a child's vulnerability and hope but spared the most gruesome details of torture and obliteration. In many ways this is a grace, for it allows us to focus on the child's small world of her privileged family and their servants without being overwhelmed by the incomprehensible horror of Cambodia's civil war. But it also renders some characters shadowy and incomplete and glosses over context that would have helped create a firmer narrative.

Although the book jacket declares the novel covers the four years of the Khmer Rouge regime, the action is heavily concentrated on the first days and weeks after the capture and exile of Raami's family. The first half of the book is a near moment-by-moment recount of the first weeks after the Khmer Rouge declares a new state on April 17, 1975. The second half chronicles the splitting apart of Raami's family as one relative after another is slaughtered outright or dies as a result of their enslavement. There is a reference to the second anniversary of the Revolution and to Raami's ninth birthday. The book's final pages mention the war between Vietnam and Cambodia and the retreating Khmer Rouge armies, so it must end in the early weeks or months of 1979. This is significant to me because I feel the details invested in the early parts are tedious at times, whereas the shifts of time and events in the latter third of the novel, as Raami ages and suffers and grows as a refugee in her own homeland, are given broad, vague brushstrokes.

Ultimately, however, it is a book I feel honored to have read. Ratner's language is lyrical and stirring; she creates gorgeous and vivid portrait of Cambodia, filling the reader with longing to see, hear, taste, and touch a vibrant, complex land. It offers a unique perspective into a history and culture little or mis-understood in the West and I hope other readers have the same reaction as I - of wanting to know more, to read more, to hear other survivors' stories - in an effort to understand and to humanize the newspaper headlines.

My husband, as a teacher of high school history and social studies, received a Fulbright grant and spent several weeks in Southeast Asia a few years ago. Cambodia and Vietnam, in equal measure but for different reasons, touched him to his core. Vietnam's recent history he was, of course, more familiar; U.S. history books treat Cambodia's chaos as a post-script to the "American" War (as the Vietnam War is known in Southeast Asia). When you begin to fully grasp a reality that is little mentioned in our own history books, it's a horrible slap in the face - a sensation of guilt and anger that in your ignorance, you are somehow complicit. It is through the gift of authors such as Vaddey Ratner that these stories are told so we all can wake up and learn. View all my reviews

 

Book Review: City of Women by David Gillham

City of WomenCity of Women by David R. Gillham My rating: 4 of 5 stars

There is neither black nor white in war, only infinite variations of gray. With the buffer of history and hindsight, we can sit at our remove and imagine how our moral compass would guide us through treacherous situations, but fiction – well-crafted fiction – can offer three-dimensional dilemma and nuance that our egos would deny.

David Gillham’s City of Women is just such a work and it is excellent. Berlin in 1943 is a city of shadows. Nearly all able-bodied men are fighting across various fronts; left behind are hungry, cowed, suspicious citizens and their Nazi keepers, the old and infirm, wounded soldiers, and black marketeers. But mostly, Berlin is kept afloat by the wives, mothers, sisters and daughters of soldiers and officers. It is a city of women.

One of these women is the lovely and enigmatic Sigrid Schröder, a stenographer and wife of a combat officer. Sigrid’s war is reduced to the daily grind of her job and the grim existence she shares with her wretched mother-in-law. Scrapping together enough to eat, making do with threadbare clothes, huddling in a bomb shelter, not attracting the attention of her apartment building’s informers or Nazis patrolling the streets, would seem to leave Sigrid with no time or energy for moral quandaries. But there are empty moments, split open by boredom, loneliness and desperation. How Sigrid fills them drives the plot of this atypical wartime thriller.

Gillham juggles many elements. His skill at maintaining a complicated narrative with many characters, while remaining true to history, is tremendous. He adds new elements to our understanding of German citizens’ attitudes and behaviors during the war while crafting the hold-your-breath suspense of a literary thriller. His portrait of Berlin is pitch-perfect – the hopelessness and the viciousness of a city living in fear are claustrophobic and terrifying.

Gillham’s characters are intriguing, sympathetic and nuanced. The moments of tenderness and betrayal leave the reader uncertain of whom to trust, demonstrating the inconsistencies and unpredictability of human behavior that are true even in the best of circumstances. In the worst of times, who among us wouldn’t do what we needed in order to survive? Who among us would risk everything to ensure the survival of others?

What holds this back from a 5-star read is the overheated atmosphere. David Gillham’s Berlin might be drab and crumbling, but beneath the patched coats and bomb rubble is a city pulsing with sex. I’m torn here, because it also raises an important question of how women survive, even now, when their political and physical power is so often compromised. Sex becomes a refuge and a weapon. Still, the movie theatre trysts and living room carpet couplings become tedious and make you wonder how Sigrid would have been portrayed by a woman writer.

In addition, this is one of the most poorly proofread books I have encountered in recent memory. That isn’t the author’s fault, but it jars the reader from her world and sends her dashing for her red pen.

A compelling novel that I highly recommend to WWII history enthusiasts and literary thriller fans alike.

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My Character ('s) Flaw

Several days ago we stood on a beach, looking out across the Salish Sea, our shoulders hunched against the briny wind. Brendan turned to me and said, "Our lives are changing." Freighter on the Salish Sea

Not so many years ago, this sentence would have been "We are changing our lives." Hard-wired for motion, we grew restless every two or three years. We switched jobs, home loans, states, cities, countries with ease - not seeking anything better, not out of dissatisfaction for where we were or what we had - but out of a spirited curiosity, a determination to embrace adventure. And like magic, the opportunities appeared. A better-paying job offer materialized after I submitted a letter of resignation to my current employer; buyers snapped up our house before it went the market; Permanent Residency was granted when we'd hoped only for six-month work permits. It seemed that each time we decided to leap without a net, the Universe said "Go on! I got this."

But then we landed here, in this green and gray city of whey-faced, over-caffeinated hipsters and North Face puffy-coated soccer moms and we fell in love. We fell in love with the city's sparkling waters and downy peaks, its bookstores and beer, its endearing neighborhoods of Arts and Crafts bungalows and small-batch gourmet cupcake joints. We found fulfilling work, a cheap rental in a great neighborhood, created a community of friends and thought, "Right. We're home, let's set down stakes and dig in." And dig in we did. Five years in one city is a record for our nearly-21 year union. And it felt right. Mostly. Maybe. Sort of. Not really.

Here's my Solstice blog post. I'm all "It's been a pretty rough year, but now the light is shining again" Zen-like reflective, thinking the year had closed and I could move on, right? I can't reread it. I'm afraid I might cry and not get through the rest of what I want to write tonight. The thing is, in the final hours of the year that was, our settled little life shattered.

I am easily disappointed by people. Classic introvert that I am, it's a major character flaw. But I don't want to be that person, so I work to pull my heart out, open it and offer up bits to strangers and loved ones alike. Then something happens and all my demons snigger and shout "See? See! Just like we've said all along. People Suck!"

Maybe that's why I read fiction. Make-believe characters are far more satisfying than the real things. And if they aren't, I can toss the book aside and move on to the next. Or, if I make my way to the end, I can pound out a review, holding the author entirely responsible for the flaws in his characters.

And it's very likely why I write fiction. But this isn't to suggest that the fiction writer is a puppeteer stringing her characters along. When you are fully engaged in your story, writing from a place of authenticity, your characters lead you. I've spent six months getting to know my protagonist and just this morning did she finally tell me what she wanted. I've asked her since day one, knowing as any good student of writing does that all characters want something and it's the writer's job to put obstacles in the way of those desires - that's what makes a plot. But there sat my protagonist with a phone cradled to her ear, listening to a friend sharing news that will allow her to make choices, and changes, to her life, to live where and  - after a fashion -  how she wants. Suddenly she's faced with deciding what that really is. And telling me, the writer, in the process. I just had to have the patience to let her tell her story and to remain silent so I wouldn't muck it up.

Last Saturday I participated in an extraordinary workshop, "Salon at SAM", co-sponsored by the Seattle Art Museum and Hedgebrook, a retreat for writers on Whidbey Island. We selected a work of art from the SAM exhibit Elles: Women Artists from the Centre Pompidou, created a character based on that work and wrote a monologue in his or her voice.

I selected a short, continuously looped black and white film. The artist filmed herself on a beach, rotating a hula hoop around her hips. You couldn't see her head, only her naked, beautiful body. And the hula hoop wasn't what you tossed around your waist in the 4th grade. This hula hoop was made of barbed wire. It punctured and bruised the artist's skin. The film was horrifying and brutal - a political protest that touched me in a very personal way. And it gave me a story.

We shared the experience of writing from a work of art with the large group. Then we returned in small groups to the art we'd chosen and read our monologues aloud. I wrote the dance with a hula hoop made of barbed wire as a dream my character was having, a dream that made her realize she was in a situation she wanted out of, but wasn't able to admit the truth. In my story, my character was speaking to her husband. As my small group discussed my monologue, one woman turned to me and said "I don't think your character is talking to her husband. I think she is talking to another woman." I felt a rush of relief  and gratitude when I heard this. "I knew it," I replied. "Thank you. I knew the husband part was wrong." I hadn't been able to think of the "what next" until my fellow writer made me realize I was directing my character, instead of allowing her to move me.

And isn't that just what happens in life? We get so wrapped up - so busy and noisy - pushing our lives the way we think they should be going, because it's the logical thing, it's the expected thing, it's what we think others will value, that we blow right past the simple truths, the clear path of "what next."

I won't go into what happened. Not here. Not now. It's a story of such insanity that it would take more than a blog post to sort through. And besides, it's far too rich for nonfiction. I'm collecting the details even as I live through the nightmare, because someday this is going to make a fucking great read. But know that our health is fine, we are loved, we have each other and for the most part, our senses of humor remain intact. With all of this, we can get through anything.

But our lives are changing. And since the Universe is watching and listening, I just want to add: We are changing our lives.

Book Review: Toby's Room by Pat Barker

The bitter irony of war is that it defines life at the same time as it destroys. For those in uniform, following orders is the one raison d’etre when all reason has been lost in the bloodied muck of the battlefield. For those left behind, doing for the war effort becomes the channel through which fear and pride flow into the morass of uncertainty. How does war change us? Does it redefine character? Does it halt the trajectory of our lives and set us on a different path? Does it show in stark relief who we really are, stripped bare of our defenses and pretenses?

And who are once stripped of that most central piece of our identity: our literal - flesh and bone - face?

With Toby’s Room, her follow-up to 2007’s Life Class, Pat Barker returns to England in the years just prior to World War I. The first part of Toby’s Room - set in 1912 at the country home of Toby’s and his sister Elinor’s upper-middle class family - serves as a prequel to Life Class. Its second half - set in 1917 – tells us what became of the characters and their relationships that were the central focus of Life Class. Toby’s Room can be read independently of its precursor, but it is a strong testament to the writer’s skill how seamlessly she weaves together these two books so that they seem not like prequel or sequel, but parts of a greater whole.

Barker explores many of the same themes in Toby’s Room – the intersection of art and war, the brutality of the WWI battlefields and trenches, the emotional defenses people create to survive the worst of times. But Toby’s Room is darker, richer and crueler than Life Class. It shows us that not even the greatest heroism and courage can change the face of shame.

There is an element of mystery in Toby’s Room, as Elinor obsesses over the “Missing, Believed Killed” telegram her family receives in 1917. Her search for the truth of her brother’s disappearance in France defines the narrative’s plot. Elinor manages this intrigue while turning her back on any involvement in the war, willfully denying the effect it has had on her life, her love affairs and her family. She tries to lose herself in her art, but eventually it is her art that draws her directly into the war effort.

Pat Barker brings to life the fascinating intersection of war, art and science during World War I, intermingling historical characters and institutions with her fictional narrative to show how artists aided in surgical reconstruction of soldiers’ faces disfigured by bullets, bombs and shrapnel. I spent some time looking through the Tonks’ portraits at The Gillies Archives - the creation and use of which is also a central theme of Toby’s Room. The portraits of faces destroyed by war and reconstructed with the medical technology available at the time are devastating. Barker gives these forgotten men voices, faces and souls.

Her writing style is restrained and distant, almost cold at times. The tone fits the characters and their social class and mirrors the walls they have erected around their hearts. And it makes the brutality of the story all the more shocking.

The Light That I Have: Reflections On A Winter Solstice

IMG_1102 You wouldn't know looking around our small apartment that Christmas is but a few sleeps away. We've forgone our annual wet and windy visit to the Boy Scout Troop 100 Christmas Tree lot at St. Alphonsus Church across the street from Ballard Market. Although the stack of holiday greetings grows daily, the cards and letters remain unopened, as do the boxes of cards I bought for our own missives. I won't be watering poinsettias well into March because neither red nor white bloom graces our table. I can hardly be bothered to light even a candle.

We've decided to keep our heads down and plow through the rest of this year without celebration. Maybe we fear attracting any more attention from higher powers that seemed to hold the screw to us during 2012. Maybe we're just weary. Maybe celebration right now feels wrong.

But I can't stop myself from yearning for light, from reaching for the promise of renewal that the Solstice offers. It is not Christmas that holds my wonder and feeds my anticipation. I absolved December 25th of unreasonable expectations and spiritual significance some years ago. I just like the lights on the tree.

It is this ancient tradition of honoring evergreens and the burning of bright light in the darkest days that allows me to find solace in the Solstice. I think upon this day as the year's end, the time to pause and reflect as the seasons shift and the earth stutters, then marches resolutely toward Spring.

This was a year when light and dark were in constant flow, when the weight of deepest sorrow was counter-balanced by the relief of joy. Yet I come to the Solstice feeling smaller somehow, a bit shrunken and defeated by the 365 days that have passed since the night last receded, then grew full again. I watched as a loved one received the death sentence of a terrible, prolonged disease. A few weeks later life inside me stilled once again, even as I imagined names and hair color, tiny hands to hold and a little voice calling after me. I've had to stand idly to one side, fists clenched, heart pounding in rage, as the person I adore and respect most in the world agonizes over present and future and what little control he has over each seemingly stolen away. I've looked in the mirror at a body that seems hell-bent on thwarting every good thing I try to do for it, forcing me twice under a surgeon's knife and taking away in recent weeks the one thing that brought me endorphin-surging physical release. I've had to accept that many of those who've known me the longest are the least interested in discovering who I have become. And then, in the last days of this year, my voice joined the chorus of rage and grief as a stunned nation absorbed, helplessly, the news of the slaughter in Newtown.

And yet.

And yet there is light. There is laughter. There is deep happiness and certain peace. There is the celebration of twenty years of marriage - defying odds set against two very young people who knew one other five months before vowing to spend a lifetime together, listening to their hearts instead of their heads. I'd do it all again. One hundred times again. It takes my breath away to think how easily we could have slipped past each other during that busy, distracted spring of 1992, never to know what soul mate meant.

There were winter days in medieval ruelles of Paris and late summer afternoons in Irish meadows. Hundreds of miles of Seattle pavement under my running shoes (and there will be hundreds more, believe me: Body and I are working out the terms). Sunsets over Shilshole Bay. The sweet joy of new friendships blooming. The unexpected embrace of a colleague who says, "Things are better with you here." Laughter, dancing, beer and music in a beautiful community that is home, with spirited and loving people who are my family.

And there are my words, my sentences, paragraphs, pages. The slowly but steadily growing word count on a manuscript which has become my anchor, my refuge, my way - thank you, Richard Hugo - of saying the world and I have a chance. Perhaps Hugo meant that by the act of creating art, the world and I have chance together. And that perhaps I can, I should, I must, use my words to pursue what I believe is right and try to create good out of so much sadness.

Brendan and I went for a long walk late in the afternoon of this, the shortest day. I'm not one for portents, but I'll share this photo I captured of a Bald eagle against the cerulean sky and diamond-bright moon. I'll take the raptor's presence as the last blessing of this long season of darkness and be grateful for a moment of grace, no matter what the next seasons may bring.

Bald eagle, Green Lake, Winter Solstice

I am ready to meet this longest night and then watch as, minute by minute, it shrinks into the New Year and succumbs to the light of Spring.

"I am not bound to win, but I am bound to be true. I am not bound to succeed, but I am bound to live by the light that I have." Attributed to Abraham Lincoln. No matter who said it, I like it.

Book Review: Matterhorn: A Novel of the Vietnam War by Karl Marlantes

Matterhorn: A Novel of the Vietnam WarMatterhorn: A Novel of the Vietnam War by Karl Marlantes My rating: 5 of 5 stars

“First of all, you can’t fall into hating the people you are killing. Because you’ll carry that hate with you longer than you will the actual killing itself. It is only by the grace of God that you are on one side and your enemy is on the other side. I often think, ‘I could have been born in North Vietnam.’”

Matterhorn author Karl Marlantes, August 20, 2010 The Times (London).

Matterhorn: A Novel of the Vietnam War launched onto the bestseller lists in 2010, when United States was entrenched in two unpopular wars in ill-understood and seemingly hopeless places: Iraq and Afghanistan. Neither of these wars is comparable to Vietnam in terms of tactical warfare, terrain, volume of casualties and mis-treatment of vets by their fellow citizens, but the cultural divisions at home, the politicizing of the conflicts and the anger and sorrow over the loss of soldiers and civilians remain the same.

Matterhorn tells the Odyssey of Second Lieutenant Waino Mellas as he leads Bravo Company through the jungle near Vietnam’s border with Laos, just beyond the DMZ. The company’s mission is to secure a remote hilltop base: the fictional Matterhorn. This novel is a living thing. It breathes and pulses, it horrifies and heartens. It is a brilliantly written tribute to combat veterans and a searing examination of the fog of war.

Bravo Company becomes a collective Sisyphus, at the mercy of the gods of the Fifth Marine Division. It spins in circles in the jungle, trying to make sense of the quixotic orders of base commanders more concerned with their careers than the lives of the young men in their charge. The soldiers of Bravo Company endure the unbearable: jungle rot, immersion (or trench) foot, man-eating tigers, near-starvation and dehydration, and of course, the horrific wounds of war: bullets, grenades, mines and shrapnel cut down the company throughout their journey.

The narrative has many themes: the adventure of battle and the camaraderie of soldiers; the value of a well-trained militia in sharp contrast with inherent unjustifiable nature of war; the racial tension between black soldiers and white that brings the conflicts of home to the battlefields of Vietnam; and the truth of military politics - the power struggles between reserve and regular officers and “lifers” on the ground and with their commanding officers, who adjust casualty numbers and keep up a pretense of victory to look good to their superiors and to the press at home.

Marlantes writes with clarity and authenticity, in a style that is raw, vivid and surprisingly readable. Matterhorn flows with fully realized characters whom you come to love or revile with ferocity, your heart breaking with each loss. He provides breathtaking detail; the combat scenes are rendered in a minute-by-minute reel and you experience the soliders' fear, adrenalin and pain.

It took Karl Marlantes, a decorated Vietnam veteran and accomplished civilian (Lieutenant, USMC; Rhodes Scholar, Oxford) thirty years to write, rewrite and find a publisher for Matterhorn. Although I would not wish such an arduous journey to publication on any writer, I believe that telling this story now, in a new century, to a generation for which the Vietnam War is an anecdote or a chapter in an American History textbook, benefits the book's readers and its subject.

Among the most precious and devastating aspects of any war are the soldiers’ stories. No one who has not served in combat can understand what a soldier suffers physically and emotionally. For Vietnam veterans, who returned home only to face insults and shunning, the stories remained locked inside. Writers who record their stories speak for the millions who cannot. In 1977, journalist Michael Herr published Dispatches, an account of his experiences in Vietnam in 1967-68 embedded with platoons; Vietnam veteran Tim O’Brien offered the beautiful and compelling The Things They Carried in 1990. Twenty years later - and thirty-five years after the end of the war in Vietnam - Karl Marlantes reminds us that the stories of young soldiers in the jungles of Southeast Asia are as devastating and relevant now as they were to a generation once removed - our fathers, brothers, uncles and grandfathers  - who still live with these experiences tormenting their hearts.

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Do I have to Carpe Diem today?

Go on - take at your Pinterest board, at the magnets on your fridge, at the coffee mugs replicating like rabbits in your cupboard: I reckon there is at least one version of Carpe Diem in the lot. Scattered about in forms tangible and virtual are quotes admonishing you to live life to fullest, every day, for you never know when it may be your last. Me? I've got Live as if you were to die tomorrow. Learn as if you were to live forever ~ Mahatma Gandhi tacked to a bulletin board; scribbled on the inside cover of my writing practice notebook is Begin at once to live, and count each separate day as a separate life ~ Seneca. But sometimes, no - most of the time - that's just more ambition than I'm capable of sustaining. In my mind, I'm the high achiever who plans to climb Kilimanjaro and pursue an MFA and march on Washington in favor of stricter gun access laws. But in practice, I'm made of simpler stuff. The thought of living at full throttle wears me out. It makes me a little sad. Maybe I will die tomorrow, but today the laundry needs folding, the car insurance is due, I'm fretting about work, my weight, my 401k. Does a life more ordinary mean a life less lived?

And hey, didn't Nero force Seneca to commit suicide? Maybe our favorite Roman Stoic jumped the shark with his pithy advice.

There are times -  usually accompanied by a quiet peace or a ripple of endorphins - that my quotidian experience achieves a Technicolor apex. These are not epic events, but simple episodes when I focus my awareness within the moment at hand. It is wrapping a cane around a fruiting wire in a Waipara Valley vineyard with the sun warming my scalp and the Southern Alps throwing shadows across the afternoon; it is mile four of a long run, when my legs finally discover their rhythm; it is the sizzle in the pan and the swirl of aromas as minced onions and butter meet as I create art for the belly and the soul; it is conversing in French without searching for the correct verb tense; it is losing myself in laughter with a friend; it is that wrung out  and hung out feeling after a good day of writing, knowing that I moved aside and allowed the characters find their way.

Nothing monumental, just a sense of doing and being as I'm meant to at that moment.

I also know when I'm at far remove from these interludes, when I'm removed from myself. My friend Will, lighting yet another of those cigarettes that eventually killed him, would drawl in his South Carolina-thick French, "Julie, j'ai le cafard. J'ai le blues."  He would confess his melancholy when work was getting him down. I knew he dreamed of opening an antiques store on the Maryland coast; he lived long enough to realize that dream. Not as long as he should have, but he had his moment.

My blues - that cafard, that cockroach of ennui - come when I spend my time and energy on things which are necessary but not fulfilling. Or on things which are unnecessary, but pleasantly distracting. In both instances, I turn away from that which makes me feel challenged and complete, either because I must - the car insurance has to be paid, yes, it does - or because I am too afraid or too lazy to leave behind the easy affirmation and pursue a lonelier path.

But I can't Carpe Diem every single bloody day, can I?

No, but I can beat back the encroaching cafard which refuses to die. I can start every single day on the page.

I've struggled with the words these past weeks. I've resisted, procrastinated, meandered, despaired, dilly-dallied, denied, tarried, equivocated, prevaricated. I've been very busy doing everything but what I most want to. I'm not sure entirely why this is - it's not writer's block, unless one counts blocking one's own way with dilatory tactics and self-doubt. However I knocked myself so far out of my groove, I'm working, slowly, to knock myself back in.

I hit a manuscript milestone a couple of weeks ago: 50, 000 words. That felt like something. I'm now filling in scenes that were half-starts, completing characters' stories; I'm even thinking, 50,000 words in, that an outline might come in handy. I realized at 50k that my rough draft goal of 78,000 words was too modest, so I upped it. Perhaps I can put off that outline for another 10k or so.

I'm further along than I thought I would be at this point. But I can't shake the feeling that I'm losing ground, that I keep waiting for life to be just a bit more conducive to my creativity before committing wholly to my story again. I know the answer to that. I know my story is just waiting for me to return.

Here's a William Saroyan favorite to end with a little platitudinal dissonance:

“Try as much as possible to be wholly alive, with all your might, and when you laugh, laugh like hell and when you get angry, get good and angry. Try to be alive. You will be dead soon enough.”

Most days, I think the best I can do is try to be alive, with a smidgen extra: to laugh and to move, to listen and to look outside of myself. And to write.

Book Review: The Round House by Louise Erdrich

The Round HouseThe Round House by Louise Erdrich My rating: 5 of 5 stars

On two successive nights this week I woke suddenly, yelling out in fright. In my dreams I was moments away from becoming the victim of a horrific assault. Shaken, I turned on the light, shifting uncomfortably in sheets soaked in my sweat, and I reached for The Round House. Louise Erdrich’s profound novel haunted my dreams and moved me to tears and laughter in my waking hours.

Geraldine Coutts, an Ojibwe living on a reservation in North Dakota, doesn’t escape from her nightmare. On a gentle spring Sunday in 1988 her thirteen year old son Joe and her husband Bazil, a tribal judge, peel her fingers from the steering wheel of her car and speed her unyielding body to the hospital. The front of her shirt is covered in vomit and she reeks of gasoline. Raped and nearly burned alive, Geraldine escaped when her captor went in search of matches.

Geraldine’s physical wounds heal in time, but the spirit of this proud, vibrant woman is crushed. She tumbles into depression, refusing to leave her bedroom, barely eating, escaping her terror through the false protection of sleep. The Round House opens with this crime and it becomes the incident which ushers Joe, the novel’s narrator, out of the smooth waters of his childhood into the murky depths of maturity.

The Round House is more than a coming-of-age story. The novel has many layers, each beautifully rendered in language that is so pure it belies the complex themes. The search for Geraldine’s attacker propels the narrative and in this, it is a tense literary thriller. It is an exploration of tribal law and the protracted effort by the federal government to chip away at Native American sovereignty. Tribal political and judicial limbo is a chord that resonates throughout Erdich’s works, yet when told through the perspective of a child it becomes the character’s discovery of his legacy and not the political agenda of the author. It is a novel rich with history, mythology and adventure.

But more than these themes, this is a novel of family. The tight union of Bazil, Geraldine and Joe forms the familial core. Erdrich’s portrait of a strong woman collapsing dug so deeply under my skin – this cold reality was the source of my nightmares. But the ways a husband and a son respond to the woman they love as she falls apart, how hard they work to lift her up and save her, are heartfelt and poignant. Erdrich captures each character’s emotions and reactions in vivid and graceful detail.

The theme of family extends through the tribal community. Erdrich reveals daily life on a reservation. She shows us what we think we know: the poverty and alcoholism on the inside, the marginalization and racism from the outside. But she also conveys a sense of community that few of us will ever experience, no matter how idyllic our childhood. Within the tribe everyone belongs to everyone else – the definition of family is not limited to blood relations. The communal responsibility demonstrates a solid foundation built on shared history and beliefs.

Despite the violent crime that churns the plot, there many moments of levity and sweetness in The Round House. The novel’s comic foil is Mooshom, Joe’s ancestor and tribal elder. And I do mean elder. He’s entering his second century as salty as a sailor and with libido to spare. The many scenes Joe shares with his besties Cappy, Angus and Zack are ripe with thirteen year old boy hormones, antics and tenderness.

I can’t sing loudly enough my praises for The Round House. I also can’t believe this is the first Louise Erdrich novel I’ve read. It has been a year of celebrated-American author discoveries for me: Terry Tempest Williams, Cormac McCarthy, Louise Erdrich, not to mention the astonishing debut of Amanda Coplin (The Orchardist). That they are each deeply connected to the American West is significant to me as a reader. Through their words I have developed a deeper understanding, love and compassion for my enormous and complex backyard.

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Book Review: Blood Meridian by Cormac McCarthy

Blood Meridian or the Evening Redness in the WestBlood Meridian or the Evening Redness in the West by Cormac McCarthy My rating: 4 of 5 stars

They passed through a highland meadow carpeted with wildflowers, acres of golden groundsel and zinnia and deep purple gentian and wild vines of blue morninglory and a vast plain of varied small blooms reaching onward like a gingham print to the farthest serried rimlands blue with haze and the adamantine ranges rising of out nothing like the backs of seabeasts in a Devonian dawn.

I read this and I marvel. How does one writer, equipped with the same words, the same semantic possibilities as any, know to string these particular words together in just this way, paragraph after paragraph, page after page? My copy of Cormac McCarthy's 1985 classic Blood Meridian or the Evening Redness in the West is mauled by dog-eared pages and inked underlines as I seek to capture and remember his revelatory images of the borderlands of the Southwest and the astonishing employ of English that feels primordial under his pen.

Once again, Cormac McCarthy tears me apart, digs at the darkest corners of despair and depravity in my mind, poking and prodding with a sharp stick as I wince and try to turn away. Yet unlike The Road, a black and white dystopian nightmare which offers redemption through the steadfast love of its principal characters, Blood Meridian is merciless Technicolor nihilism. Each character explores the vast possibilities of evil as McCarthy pulls the reader through the reeking entrails of history.

They found the lost scouts hanging head downward from the limbs of a fireblacked paloverde tree. They were skewered through the cords of their heels with sharpened shuttles of green wood and they hung gray and naked above the dead ashes of the coals where they’d been roasted until their heads had charred and the brains bubbled in the skulls and steam sang from their noseholes. Their tongues were drawn out and held with sharpened sticks thrust through them and they had been docked of their ears and their torsos were sliced open with flints until the entrails hung down their chests.

Blood Meridian is based on historical accounts of the Glanton Gang, a band of mercenaries that roamed the Texas-Mexico borderland in the mid-19th century, trading scalps for gold. Their initial objective was the pursuit of hostile Indian warriors who reigned by terror throughout the Borderlands. Eventually the crew of ex-soldiers, escaped slaves, convicts, marginalized immigrants, disenfranchised Indians and plain old thugs extended their quest for carnage to peaceful, agrarian Mexicans and Native Americans on both sides of the still-disputed border.

To read three hundred and fifty pages of unrelenting brutality, I have to give myself up to the prose, which is beautiful and original beyond compare, and to what I think the author sought to accomplish with his symphony of violence. I believe McCarthy offers the absolute opposite of the glorification of violence – he depicts horror to force the acknowledgment of it. His stories are blood-curdling pleas to recognize that we – as a nation, as a measure of humanity - are built on the back of history’s corpses. He decries the chest-thumping patriotism that is endemic to nations which claim moral superiority, generally by citing some sort of divine right. Scholar Sara Spurgeon in a critical essay of Blood Meridian (“The Sacred Hunter and the Eucharist of the Wilderness: Mythic Reconstructions in Blood Meridian”) declares the novel a “a sort of antimyth of the West.” There are no good guys in McCarthy’s depiction of the American West: there are only amoral murderers and the victims of their bloodlust. “Moral law is an invention of mankind for the disenfranchisement of the powerful in favor of the weak. Historical law subverts it at every turn.” Cunning words, spoken by a character who is the book’s Satan incarnate, its maniacal resident philosopher.

The danger of a book like this is that the reader must detach to make it through the gore. In comparison to The Road, where humility and love are present on every page and you have a sense the writer is suffering and weeping with you, the substance of Blood Meridian risks being subsumed by its intense and unrelenting style.

But without question Blood Meridian or The Evening Redness in the West is yet another McCarthy entry in the canon of Great North American Literature.

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Book Review: The Rise and Fall of the Third Reich: A History of Nazi Germany by William Shirer

The Rise and Fall of the Third Reich: A History of Nazi GermanyThe Rise and Fall of the Third Reich: A History of Nazi Germany by William L. Shirer My rating: 5 of 5 stars

Three years ago I implemented a personal tradition: to read a "Monster Classic" each year. This is my term, referring to a piece of writing that is great in reputation and girth. The how and when of it is to begin the Monster mid-summer and read it in fits and starts over the course of several months, with a goal of finishing before the end of the year. The why of it isn't so simple. Most avid readers I know have daunting lists of books they want to or feel they should read. I'm no different, but life is too short for shoulds. I'm after something that will change the way I look at writing, at storytelling, at the world.

For whatever reason I have chosen these books, I realized this summer that my Monster Classics are built on the premise of, or are greatly informed by, war. Two years ago I read Thomas Mann's The Magic Mountain, an allegorical tale shaped largely by Mann's reaction to World War I; last year, Tolstoy brought me War and Peace, that gorgeous and profound tale of Russia during the Napoleanic era.

This summer I turned from fiction to narrative non-fiction. World War II has long fascinated and disturbed me. I've sought, without success, to reconcile the incongruous romance of this war - the films, music, literature that conjure a sense of the heroic and of solidarity, the "Greatest Generation" united as Allies - with its human suffering so incomprehensible that the mind struggles against its limits to accept what the eyes witness in words and photos.

I selected The Rise and Fall of the Third Reich for perhaps the same reason that millions before me have: to understand how one man created a machine of slaughter out of a country in shambles. After 1264 pages in six weeks, I am still bewildered. Of course I knew the external conditions: the carving up of Germany after WWI, the political disaster that the Treaty of Versailles put into motion, the desperate economic conditions in Germany as the Depression ground what little economy it had left into grist. But this diminutive Austrian who so captured the imagination and bent the will of a once-proud nation -- how did he do it? Why did he? And why did so many follow him into the hell of his creation?

William Shirer, a longtime foreign correspondent, worked in the Third Reich from 1934 to 1940, leaving only when it became clear he and his family were no longer safe. He returned to Germany in 1945 to report on the Nuremberg trials. The Rise and Fall of the Third Reich was published in 1960, barely a generation after the end of the war.

Because of Shirer's proximity and access to the majors players of the Third Reich and certainly because war was exploding all around him, the book has an immediacy and intimacy that sets it apart from a traditional historical examination of events. It also contains Shirer's interpretations, suppositions and ruminations.

As an American of German-Italian-Norwegian descent, I had a very hard time with Shirer's characterization of Germans as possessing a predilection for cruelty and war. There are few nations that remain exempt from this pointed finger. But it begs the question that even Shirer could not answer: how did the atrocities of the war escape the outrage of the German people? Shirer presents clues and circumstances which serve as a caution to us all. And many of which I recognize in today's socially and politically polarized America that feeds on propaganda and is increasingly indulgent of politicians' idiocy and rejection of facts.

The Rise and Fall of the Third Reich is thick with military history - this is a book about war. That may seem obvious, but do not expect a sociological narrative. Shirer is a great journalist, which assumes certain skill in telling a story that will appeal to a lay audience. But this book, after its introduction to Hitler and his early life, uses the major events, invasions and battles of World War II to show the creation of an empire.

It is a testament to Shirer's skill that I became so caught up in the details of Hitler's conquests and defeats. Although I have read books about individual battles, I have never followed a comprehensive history of the European theatre. It was astonishing to read on-the-ground reports as nearly all of Europe fell at Germany's feet in a short period, then to sit above it all and witness Hitler's increasing megalomania that spelled out his downfall.

It is dense. It is detailed. It is exhausting, exhaustive, overwhelming and shattering. To read The Rise and Fall of the Third Reich is to have your heart broken again and again. Yet, to hold history at arm's length is to guarantee that it will be repeated.

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Not All Who Wander Are Lost*

“Travel is more than the seeing of sights; it is a change that goes on, deep and permanent, in the ideas of living.” – Miriam Beard

There was never a question that the celebration of our 20th wedding anniversary would involve passports. It was just a matter of where. I recall having plans to celebrate our 15th in Greece, but we found ourselves living in New Zealand that year, so we traded in visions of the cobalt Mediterranean for the reality of the cerulean Pacific. Not a bad deal. Greece is back on the table for our 25th. Italy sat at the tippy-top of the list for a long while. I've travelled it knee to toe; Brendan and I have been to the Veneto and Trentino together. But there is so much we want to do in Italy, we couldn't decide where to start. Italy got reshuffled back into the deck.

Southeast Asia was mentioned. Enchanted by Cambodia and Vietnam during his stay in 2005 as a Fulbright Teacher-Scholar, Brendan can't wait to return with me and I can't wait to go. But it requires more preparation and planning than we have energy for right now. Then there's that walking and whisky tour of Scotland we've mapped out, with a long weekend in Iceland on the way over. Maritime Canada. Mongolia. I've been after South Africa for some time now and I've just about got Brendan convinced, but not in time for this year.

At some point in early spring we realized we were over-thinking the whole program. If you know us, you know we'd pick up sticks tomorrow and move (back) to France. France forms the foundation of our dreams. It is where we both entered adulthood, Brendan working at a family-run vineyard and Cognac distillery the year after he graduated the University of Oregon, I studying at the University of Savoie. It is the reason we met, a shared struggle over Proust in Advanced French Literature. Brendan was completing his teaching certificate at the same university where I was finishing a double major after a year studying in Chambèry and a summer teaching in Japan. We've returned to France several times over the years, mostly together, on occasion alone.

When we moved to Seattle from New Zealand, we did not resume our former careers as a high school teacher (Brendan) and study abroad program manager (me). This meant no more summers off for Brendan and the drying up of my frequent flyer mileage account. We determined that for the next few years, given the demands of our jobs that zap time and energy for complicated journeys, we'd limit our travel to the one place we know we love, where every visit solidifies our desire to make a life there, someday: France. It is travel with a strategy. We keep up our language skills and culture specific know-how while scoping out long-term possibilities (I'm talking retirement here, people, nothing like a little 20 year vision). We visit a new region each time, staying in one place to really learn it, then end the trip with a couple of days in Paris. We even have "our" hotel in Paris. It is never work to plan, but it's an adventure from start to finish.

This year, for our 20th, Burgundy called. We decided to base ourselves in Beaune and bike the countryside, rent a car for a long weekend hop over the German border to visit friends in Freiburg, take a few day trips by train south to Macon and Beaujolais; we'd drink and eat and bike our way through one of the most beautiful regions of France we've never seen. Done deal.

So, we're headed to Ireland. Come Wednesday, our anniversary, we'll be lacing up our hiking boots and setting stride along the Kerry Way.

It's been a year of tremendous change and turmoil. Events exhilarating and exhausting have left us with such a need for peace, reflection and a complete unplug from our current of thoughts. One afternoon as we mulled over where to pick up the rental car, which weekend to dash to Germany, if we should bypass Paris to spend a weekend in Champagne, Brendan turned to me and said, "Let's go to Ireland." In that instant, I knew. I felt immediate peace.

By just speaking the word "Ireland" aloud, I feel my heart rate slow, my shoulders relax, my jaw loosen. I envision those long, quiet hours on a trail, surrounded by every shade of green, blue, gray and gold the fields, sea and sky can offer, the clouds overhead as creamy white as the sheep that watch us as we tramp through their paddock.

This will be our fourth trip to Ireland in ten years. We do the same thing, in a different area, each time. And that thing is The Walk. We surrender all planning to the darling, generous, efficient, tremendous team at Southwest Walks Ireland. We simply arrive when and where we are told. We rest and rise the next morning to begin days and days of walking. There is a map, we have our packs, we hike hill and dale, stopping to marvel, rest, eat, talk when and where we will, trusting we will find our way each day to that night's lodging. In the evenings there is a snug B&B, a warm pub, a steaming bowl of stew, a Paddy's over ice or a pint of Guinness with a head taller than my hand is wide. There is music, there is silence. And always, every day, there is the long, long walk. 

In the early days we stick together, chatting, bubbling over all the things we haven't had time to share in the rush of days and weeks when we hardly see one another. But soon we fall silent. Words are no longer necessary when your hearts are in perfect synchronicity.

Warm beaches on remote islands or ocean liners on the high seas don't interest us. We both rest best when we are in motion - it is a mélange of play and exercise that allows us to let go of the pressures and expectations of our everyday lives and brings us back to the sweet and simple people we are at heart. Walking our way through a holiday adds a significant dose of zen - there is nothing more meditative than the motion of one foot in front of the other for hours on end. And nothing more delightful knowing you do not walk alone.

This is a bittersweet journey. We embarked on our last visit, in 2006, just a month before we moved to New Zealand. An enormous adventure blossomed before us, dreams on the cusp of being realized. Thinking of all that has happened in the intervening six years just rocks me. Starting over more times than we'd bargained for. Saying goodbye far too often - to loved ones, to babies, to dreams. It is staggering.

We shared that last hike in Ireland with two of our dearest friends, two men as in love and committed as Brendan and I could ever hope to be, who had been together at least as long as the anniversary we celebrate now. We made plans during that hike that they would join us in New Zealand when their retirements were finalized; we'd open a café, have a small farm... One of those men is gone now, taken by cancer. Even after two years, my life will never be as bright without Peter in it.

Ireland is in celebration our lives together, this amazing adventure that we've lived in the 20 years, 5 months and ten days that have passed since our first date. It is to recapture peace that we have lost in a tumultuous year. And it's to touch that fragile, tender part of the soul that needs looking after, before you set it free to dream again.

 “I soon realized that no journey carries one far unless, as it extends into the world around us, it goes an equal distance into the world within.” – Lillian Smith

*All that is gold does not glitter, Not all those who wander are lost; The old that is strong does not wither, Deep roots are not reached by the frost. - Gandalf, "Lord of the Rings: The Fellowship of the Ring" by J.R.R. Tolkien

These Are The Days

The first warm days of May set me thinking about the promise of summer. The season gets shorter as I age and each year my sense of urgency grows. I plan small adventures, vowing that this summer will be unforgettable, this summer I will feel like a child again. I look for quiet magic:  Shakespeare in the park, concerts at the zoo, swims in the lake, picnics at Shilshole. Once the gloom of June has passed, Seattle sparkles blue and green, wrapping an easy warmth around long, bright days. From the summer's true arrival in the Pacific Northwest in early July well into golden October, there are few lovelier places.  I never live up to my own expectations of summer. What becomes of those simple hopes, those picnics, concerts, Sundays at the market? What exactly did I do with my weeks that I have so few of them left and only a fog of memory behind me?

This year summer had an agenda that diverged so far from mine, we may as well have been in different hemispheres. I wake in mid-season, wishing I could press rewind on the remote control - not wanting to replay the weeks I'd lost, but to erase them and begin again, to insert a new story into the machine.

For seven weeks I've bled. From miscarriage to surgery to the first menstrual cycle since April, I live with a daily reminder of my helplessness over my body. A small fortune spent in the feminine hygiene aisle. A flood of hormones that sets my edge on edge, never certain what might set off the tears or the rage.

But now I emerge from the haze of heartbreak into the blue summer that is as soft as a worn pair of Levis. I tally the hurts, but also the triumphs. Days after my loss, I turned my heart to the page, filling the hollow space with words and finding joy in the act of creating characters and watching as their lives unfold on the page or screen before me. I may not have had the emotional energy to prepare those picnics or plan for those concerts, but I've made certain that every day I turn my face to the sun and move my limbs in the breeze. My running has never been stronger, my freestyle stroke never more fierce. Yes, I've retreated - it's my nature to pull away when I most need the comfort of others - but with a few deep breaths I'm able to reach out until it no longer feels like a chore.

And now it is August. The days of waking in the wee hours to the first dove-gray light of dawn have ended. I rise to the blue-black that will darken my early mornings until April. The afternoons are hot, but the brilliance has dimmed - our small section of Earth is tired from weeks without rain. The trees billow, but their bright leaves have faded to sun-baked green mottled with brown.

My favorite season is before me: Autumn, a time of renewal, when my energy rebounds in the cooling air. But the sky won't deepen to Grecian blue or glow with a Tuscan aura for a few weeks, yet. The evenings aren't ready to yield their velvety warmth to the freshness that heralds the season's change. Summer is resting, languid. The ice cubes in her sun tea have melted, the lemon wedge is limp, but she still tastes sweet. Let her stay, linger, for a while. I'm not quite finished - there is a little girl who wants to come outside to play.

These Are The Days ~ Van Morrison

These are the days of the endless summer These are the days, the time is now There is no past, there’s only future There’s only here, there’s only now
These are days of the endless dancing and the Long walks on the summer night These are the days of the true romancing When I’m holding you oh, so tight
These are the days now that we must savour
And we must enjoy as we can
These are the days that will last forever
You’ve got to hold them in your heart.
These Are The Days lyrics © Universal Music Publishing Group

Book Review: The Journal of Hélène Berr by Hélène Berr

The Journal of Hélène BerrThe Journal of Hélène Berr by Hélène Berr My rating: 5 of 5 stars

"...I have a duty to write because other people must know. Every hour of every day there is another painful realization that other folk do not know, do not even imagine, the suffering of other men, the evil that some of them inflict. And I am still trying to make the painful effort to tell the story.

Hélène Berr writes these words on October 10, 1943, a year and a half after the opening entry of The Journal of Hélène Berr. This entry marks a profound change in the emotional and intellectual life of a compassionate, smart, sophisticated but sheltered young woman.

Hélène Berr is one of five children of an upper-middle class Parisian family. Although raised by an Ashkenazi Jewish father and Sephardic Jewish mother, religion plays far less a role in her life than secular education. She is a graduate of the Sorbonne, seeking an advanced degree as her journal begins. She is an accomplished musician, linguist and scholar of Western literature. Hélène is curious, articulate and like many young women in the bloom of their early twenties, she loves the attention of men, she adores her many female friends; she lives for the pleasure of weekends in the country and discussing literature in Parisian cafés.

But she is a Jew. It is Occupied Paris, 1942. And this remarkable account by a young woman living through the nightmare of Nazi occupation and French collusion is a unique treasure: rarely are we able to hold in our hands, heart and mind the real-time thoughts and actions of a life in drastic transition.

The obvious comparison to Hélène's journal is The Diary of Anne Frank. The difference is that Hélène is free as she writes, she is able to move about her beloved Paris, she has means and a degree of social freedom. For the reader, this holds a particular pain: we know this spirited woman is doomed, yet we rejoice with her as she gathers flowers at the family's country home in Aubergenville, as she contemplates her future with one of two men who may love her, as she practices Bach and trembles at Keats. Reading, I ache to push her south to Spain, west to England. I whisper "Run, run, Hélène, run while there is still time."

Hélène's journal from April - November 1942 is a slow progression from anecdotes about the impact of war on daily life in Paris to growing indignation and fear at the vulnerability of her Jewish family and friends. The most unspeakable happens - her father is arrested in June 1942 and sent to Drancy, a prison camp just outside the city. Amazingly, he is released a few months later and shortly after that Hélène falls silent, for nearly a year.

It is when she resumes her journal again, in October 1943, that the pretty, flighty girl has become an analytical, hardened woman. The compassion and the appreciation of beauty remain, but Hélène seems resigned to her fate. I found this passage so profound. Who among us has not asked how the German people allowed the Holocaust to happen? Could the soldiers of the Occupation all have been monsters? Hélène writes:

'So why do the German soldiers I pass on the street not slap or insult me? Why do they quite often hold the metro door open for me and say "Excuse me, miss" when they pass in front? Why? Because those people do not know, or rather, they have stopped thinking; they just want to obey orders. So they do not even see the incomprehensible illogicality of opening a door for me one day and perhaps deporting me the next day: yet I would still be the same person. They have forgotten the principle of causality. There is also the possibility that they do not know everything. The atrocious characteristic of this regime is its hypocrisy. They do not know all the horrible details of the persecutions, because there is only a small group of torturers involved, alongside the Gestapo.

Hélène and her parents are arrested in their home in March 1944. Hélène perishes at Bergen-Belsen in November 1944, five days before the camp is liberated by the British.

Hélène regularly gave pages of her journal to a family employee; a surviving family member in turn gave the journal to Hélène's true love, Jean Morawiecki. The translator, David Bellos, shepherded the work to publication in France in 2008 to enormous acclaim. The original manuscript now resides at the beautiful and haunting Mémorial de la Shoah in Paris's Marais district.

Hélène is an extraordinary writer - she has the soul of a poet and the vocabulary of a scholar. Her words are a gift to her readers, her life a sacrifice without sense. By reading what Hélène saw and experienced, we honor her hope: that we will never forget View all my reviews

Today was the day.

My ideas usually come not at my desk writing but in the midst of living. Anais Nin

Today was the day. Today I wrote the opening paragraphs. I'd thought to spend days (weeks, really) drafting an outline, creating character sketches, compiling resources, delving into research. I knew, unlike the short stories I’ve written, I couldn’t pants a novel. Especially not historical fiction.

All those things await me. I know they must be done. I’ll work better within the comfort of structure, with direction and goals. I’m a Virgo after all: I emerged from the womb with an outline clenched in my wee fist. Of course, the ink was smeared so I have no idea what that outline contained. Hopefully I haven’t skipped over anything important. Sucks about the piano lessons. That was out of my control, anyway.

But damn if Virgos aren’t always working from a plan.

And that’s always been part of my problem. I worry too much about the how of the thing, instead of getting on with the doing of it.

So on this warm and glowing July day I sat myself - laptop in the spot for which it is named - at the base of a tree on a hill overlooking Elliott Bay. In fact, here’s the view, recorded and presented for the sake of posterity:

And I wrote. I wrote what I thought might be the beginning. I wanted to introduce myself to one of my principal characters, the woman who is going to carry the main thread of the story. I got her started, but then another central character started tapping a toe, suggesting his storyline would be the better one with which to begin. So he got a few paragraphs. Then I realized the real beginning was several miles away and months earlier. The page breaks accumulated as the first chapters shook out. Word count? Not so much. Racing brain? I pounded out the miles. Full throttle joy.

And there they are. My characters. Alive. Centuries apart from each other and an ocean away from me, but they are breathing. And heaven help me, I’m terrified. None of us has any idea what we’re in for.

I’d been tossing around three ideas for a novel for some time. I’d put off examining any of them seriously until a) I’d finished my wine certification program. Well, that ended in May. I still have no idea if I passed. But I’ve mostly stopped analyzing to bits every glass of wine I meet. And b) I’d finished my writing program. I mailed my final story June 21 and hit the road the same day to attend the delightful Chuckanut Writers Conference in Bellingham, WA.

Then life turned to custard. I'm working on that proverbial reclamation of mojo. Mourning is an ebb and flow of anger, grief, peace and acceptance; sometimes you are drowning, other times you are stranded. What you hope for is to prolong the times when you are just riding the waves.

But at that conference I had the first inkling I could shape at least one of these ideas into something resembling a story. The ideas battled for attention, each presenting a sound argument why theirs was the one I should pursue: one wouldn’t require research, one would be the most commercially viable, one would be legit literary.

So I asked myself, “WWSKD?” And my self replied, “Stephen King would tell you the same thing he told everyone in his most excellent On Writing. ‘Write what you love to read.’ So, if I follow that astute piece of advice, the choice comes down to Jamie Oliver cookbooks, which are already written by Jamie Oliver, and the story which now has its own folder on my hard drive. It even has a title.

I started a story novel today. Check in with me in ten years. I’ll let you know how it’s going.

The Scariest Thing

"What would happen if one woman told the truth about her life? The world would split open."  - Muriel Rukeyser, as quoted by Terry Tempest Williams in her book "When Women Were Birds: Fifty-Four Variations On Voice" A reading given June 21, 2012, Bellingham, WA "Writers must share the scariest things about their lives." Sherman Alexie, Opening address, Chuckanut Writers Conference, Bellingham, WA, June 22-23, 2012

 

I will share something very scary with you. I will tell you a truth about my life.

But not just yet.

I attended my first writers' conference this past weekend. I entered trembling, wondering if there was a secret handshake, if I was too young or too old, if I had too few works published to be credible, if it was written all over my face that I did not have that all-important WIP or MS to offer up (writer jargon for Work-In-Progress and ManuScript). Famous Writers wandered about, as well as a Poet Laureate or two; Literary Agents took 5-minute pitch appointments; aspiring and published writers clutched notebooks and tablet computers - a life's work on college-ruled or flash-drive - hoping to be discovered.

Oh but no, it wasn't at all precious. The Chuckanut Writers Conference - held in the earnest, evergreen-and-blue city of Bellingham, perched on a bay just south of the Canadian border - was a welcoming gathering of writers of prose and poetry of every level of experience and ambition. I soaked up insights in sessions on the seduction of a sentence and packing premise into your novel; I scribbled pages of notes on the practice of story-boarding; I held my breath as a panel held court on Breathing Life Into Characters. I came away from each workshop and plenary with concrete ideas to put into practice. I was inspired, motivated, encouraged, overwhelmed and determined.

So, thank you, Chuckanut Writers Conference. I hope to see you next year. And perhaps I will have something ready to pitch. You know, the premise of My Great American Novel in fifty words or less.

But the weekend did begin and end with tears. And there's that scary thing I said I would share.

The evening before the conference began, Terry Tempest Williams - the celebrated writer of environmental literature, women's rights activist and conservationist - gave a reading in downtown Bellingham from her new book When Women Were Birds: Fifty-four Variations On Voice. This is a lovely collection of meditative essays on motherhood, nature, faith and love, inspired by the journals her mother bequeathed to her shortly before her death at 54. Three bookshelves of journals, which the author opened a month after her mother died. Each journal was blank. When Women Were Birds is Ms. Tempest Williams's attempt to understand what her mother had written in those empty books.

One of the several chapters the author read was XXVII. It is, on the surface, an essay on the importance of women's reproductive rights. But the muscle of her words, what sent the tears streaming, is what she writes about the meaning of menstruation:

"Because what every woman knows each month when she bleeds is, I am not pregnant. Because what every woman understands each time she makes love is, Life could be in the making now. Because until she bleeds, she imagines every possibility from pleasure to pain to birth to death and how she will do what she needs to do, and until she bleeds, she will worry endlessly, until she bleeds. Because until she bleeds, repeat it again, she will check her womb every day for the stirrings of life. Because until she bleeds, she wonders if her life will be one or two or three."

 

The author writes of women who wait for the reassurance of their monthly cycles. Yet for those of us who have faced infertility, who know the devastation of miscarriage, her words resonate as deeply. For us, who have experienced such loss, this bleeding is an ending of all hope, not a sigh of relief. And so her words, they made me cry.

"Because until she bleeds she will check her womb every day for the stirrings of life."

Two days later, late Saturday afternoon, just before the final session of the conference, I dashed into the bathroom for a quick pee. I pulled down my panties and saw what I hadn't felt.

A streak of bright red blood.

I sat on the toilet with my head between my legs as the world went gray.

When I walked into that bathroom, I was ten weeks pregnant. When I walked out, I was

 

Empty.

 

The cramps began after I returned home Saturday evening. They were bad. Then they got worse. By Sunday afternoon I was writhing on the living room carpet, crying and gasping as my uterus ripped itself apart. I have never experienced such agony for so long. I refused to let Brendan take me to the hospital. Women have been giving birth to life and to death on their own since the beginning. These were the only labor pains I would ever know and it was pain I would own, pain I would remember, because I had nothing else. At 10 p.m. Sunday evening, I finally crawled into bed, my body no longer sharing space with another.

Though shocked to learn we were pregnant - we'd long since given up hope after years of trying, years of exploring alternatives, years spent healing from loss - it was impossible not to give in to joy, not to allow our hearts to swell in anticipation of meeting the life we had created. Yet we tried to prepare ourselves for heartbreak; the wounds from our miscarriage in 2009 reopened as we admitted our deepest fears.

In a moment of twisting around to look at a less-dark side I said to Brendan, "When we lost the first baby, I wasn't writing. I wasn't creating anything, I had nowhere to voice my grief and rage. But now, if the worst happens, I have a voice. I have a place to go that gives me hope and joy and meaning. At least, if the worst happens, I have that."

And the worst happened. At the same time that my intellect was pulsing with life, my body was casting off death.

 

I am very very angry.

 

I am so very sad.

 

There is no sense to be made of nor any higher purpose served by our losses; there is no "That which doesn't kill us makes us stronger" bullshit platitude that I can bear hearing without wanting to slap silly the mouth which delivers it.

There will be no next chance. I am 43. I am done with this now. My heart cannot take the pain. My body cannot take the turmoil.

Brendan took me in his arms when I returned home Saturday night. My first words to him were, "It's going to be just the two of us."

"That's fine by me," he replied.

And we cried, because nothing was fine.

But it will be again, someday.

So I work, because it gives me dignity.

I run, because it helps me make peace with my body.

And I write, because writing is how I will create life.

The Prisoner's Hands

A few weeks ago I began work on a piece that's been in my heart for several years. It is the story of a star-crossed romance that bloomed in the last year of World War II between a spoiled young French woman and a German prisoner-of-war with movie-star cheekbones and piercing blue eyes. The tale is inspired by a true war romance, a story of characters whom I've known for many years. It was first told to me by my husband, who spent a year working near the village of Cognac in vineyards owned by the French woman's brother-in-law. Brendan became acquainted with the sister and her husband during their visits to the farm from their home in western Germany. They took to Brendan, marveling at this young man who barely spoke French, yet who was willing to live with strangers, tending their vineyards and learning to make their Cognac in exchange for room and board. I then met the couple in 1993, several months after Brendan and I married. We spent ten days at the Bavarian home where the tall, elegant German man was raised, sheltered in the beauty of his Alpine village and by his parents' wealth and gentility.

This couple is still alive. In their late 80s, they spend their days arguing in French in a comfortable apartment full of memories in the medieval village of Freiburg.We've visited them several times over the years, usually at their summer cottage on the Atlantic coast outside the town of Royan, which was smashed to ruins by German and Allied bombs alike. An ironic tragedy borne of desperation and mis-information as the War waned.

We know our chances to hear their stories are disappearing - we hope that at least Brendan can visit in the coming year. And I hope to bring part of their extraordinary story to life.

One detail of the real romance I heard once has served as my inspiration, and thus far, as the title of the story: The Prisoner's Hands.

The young prisoner had fine hands: long, tapered fingers and clean nails, as clean as could be expected while living in the squalor of penal confinement. Because of those hands, and his ability to speak clear and sophisticated French, he came to the attention of local, influential factory owner. The businessman used his connections to "employ" the handsome young German prisoner as a day laborer on the grounds of his estate.

I have identified the prison camp as Stalag 180, outside the lovely, gentle village of Amboise, on the banks of the Loire River. In German hands it had been a transition point for captured Roma, French Jews and Communists before being sent to their deaths in the East. Under French control, it held Germans captured as Liberation forces cut a swath west across the war-trampled fields of north and central France. After some months, American soldiers took control of the prison camp; the German prisoners were released and the young man, still a teenager, returned to his Bavarian home.

This much I know is true. I also know that nearly ten years after the end of the war, the German prisoner married the factory owner's youngest daughter and took her back to Germany, where they have lived since.

I am now in unchartered waters. I have embarked upon a journey where creating a story inspired by real lives straddles a razor's edge. I struggle with the conflicts in my heart to offer an empathetic portrait of a man whose fellow citizens participated in crimes horrific beyond all comprehension. The details I weave from a collection of threads of the story as it has been told to me, of history as it has been recorded and from my imagination. It is easy to lose the singularity of these threads as the story takes shape and the characters go their own ways.

I began this story as my final assignment for my writing program, but I now set it aside. I will wait for a time when deadlines and word limits will not constrain a story that fills my heart with a pounding certainty that it should be told. I trust the story has been gifted to me for a reason. I will do my best.